The San Francisco Mint, known as the "Granite Lady" for its stately granite classic revival architecture, contributed mightily to saving the city from total economic chaos by serving as a financial center during the days that followed the devastating 1906 earthquake. With the downtown area and its banks destroyed, the San Francisco Mint was the only financial institution able to open for business in San Francisco. The mint became the depository and treasury for the city's relief fund, and was the only agency capable of receiving and disbursing the monies necessary for the city's recovery.
The Granite Lady herself had been miraculously spared damage. Though surrounded by fire, U.S. Army personnel and mint employees fought the blaze to save the mint, and the $200 million in gold in its vaults. They struggled for seven hours with one-inch fire hoses connected to wells that had fortunately been built just weeks earlier.
On July 8, 1852, President Millard Fillmore signed an act authorizing a branch mint in California. By 1869, Congress had appropriated $300 thousand to acquire a new site at Fifth and Mission streets and construct a building. Plans were drawn under the supervision of Alfred B. Mullet. Mullett’s design was Classical Greek Revival, Doric columns of Roman scale and proportions. On May 26, 1870, the cornerstone of the mint was laid. The building opened on a rainy Saturday, November 5, 1874.
Mullett knew well that the Pacific Coast was subject to earthquakes, and with remarkable foresight, he designed the Old Mint to “float" on its foundations in an earthquake, rather than shatter. His vision was validated when the mint rode out the severe earthquake of Wednesday, April 18, 1906, practically undamaged. By 1934, one third of the United States' gold reserves were stored in the vaults of the San Francisco Mint.
In 1937, a new, larger United States Mint was authorized and minting operations were transferred to the new facility, now the San Francisco Mint. By the spring of 1969, the Old Mint was declared a government surplus building. On January 22, 1970, a Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) commission recommended preserving the Old Mint for court offices and a museum.
Following restoration work in 1972, the Old Mint Museum opened in the eastern half of the building, while Treasury Department offices continued to occupy the rest. In 1988, the Old Mint was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
On August 5, 2003, the U.S. General Services Administration turned over the key to the Old Mint to the City of San Francisco. Mayor Willie Brown bought the national landmark Monday with a borrowed silver dollar that was minted in the Granite Lady 124 years earlier.